Don't be fooled by ‘per-capita emissions’ metrics

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, November 9, 2022
Don’t be fooled by ‘per-capita emissions’ metrics

Once again, Canada is being portrayed as an environmental laggard, and by implication, Canadians are being portrayed as morally dubious. Even the prime minister receives a drubbing. Why? Because declines in per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not keeping pace with Canada’s peers in the G7.

In Bloomberg, reporters Zahra Hirji and Akshat Rathi lay out the indictment. In the seven years that Justin Trudeau has been prime minister, GHG emissions have plateaued while Canada’s GDP has increased by 8 per cent. Now to some people (perhaps most), this “planking the curve” might seem like an achievement. But apparently, it’s actually a failure since “all of Canada’s peers” in the G-7 have “managed to achieve economic growth while simultaneously cutting emissions.” Among the 20 major economies (or G20), “Canada ranks behind only Saudi Arabia” when it comes to per-capita emissions. Yes, we’re almost as bad as the Saudis and everyone knows what that means. We’re bad.

This kind of accusation happens relatively often these days—the per-capita comparison has become a staple in the various environmental assessment reports put out by environmental groups worldwide. It’s also completely bogus.

Per-capita metrics are often used to cast moral judgements inappropriately, and there’s an undertone in reporting about per-capita metrics that suggests it’s an indicator of selfishness. The Bloomberg article, with its emphasis on comparing Canada to the Saudis, paints Canadians as selfish gushers of GHGs. But again, this is a bum rap.

As individuals, Canadians (like just about everyone else) can do little about their level of emissions. Canada is a large country with a relatively small highly-dispersed population. We have long transportation distances and must deal with a wide range of often inclement temperatures and precipitation. Even if we Canadians became extremely energy efficient as individuals, we would still appear to have higher per-capita energy consumption, especially in comparison to the many small milder countries in the European Union, with their tiny transportation distances and relatively warmer climates.

There’s also the broader fact that as individuals, nobody has much impact on the climate. As Morten Byskov (himself a person deeply concerned about the climate) noted: “A recent report found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988. Incredibly, a mere 25 corporations and state-owned entities were responsible for more than half of global industrial emissions in that same period.” Byskov also noted that the magnitude of the world’s decarbonization goals is so large that talking about per-capita emissions, and creating the impression that individuals can impact the big picture with their own emission-reduction efforts, is simply a distraction. “Per capita focuses us on marginal decarbonization instead of deep decarbonization… Per capita makes us think about lifestyles rather than about government policy.”

In other words, it’s disingenuous to slag Canada for losing the race to lower “per capita” emission levels because the use of “per capita” measurement in a climate change context is also disingenuous. The media should learn better than to carry such silliness at face value.

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